Joe Che - Conversations with Artists
What is the art of what you do?
I’m a cultural artist and a community builder, but my personal art is the art of pursuing happiness- both for myself and for others.
What is a cultural artist?
First, you have to define what culture is. For me, it’s the framework between interactions of people. For instance, how do we decide to come together to eat, to celebrate? How do we communicate? How do we support each other? What are the expectations of how we interact? I'm fascinated by the culture of NYC as well as the culture of the world. Is the culture very closed and guarded? Or is it open and welcoming? I’m driven to find out who you are. I value curiosity and being open so that we can share and learn from each other. I think that's what it means to be a cultural artist. I’m interested in bringing people together for meaningful interactions and experiences. My partner Timothy and I formed the Lightning Society and the most important part of what we do is bringing people together. Whether it's a dinner party or a yoga session with meditation followed by a discussion of how people feel about it — ultimately it’s all about seeking happiness.
What do you hope evolves from this?
I think that as humans we’re meant to be in strong tribe-like groups. Technology has led us towards isolation. I think in most people there is a desire and a need to be around people who accept us for ourselves. I want to help build a community that creates together, dreams together and is able to make positive changes together. Our main goal is to help others celebrate our collective humanity. At the same time, while technology isolates us it can also bring people together. We see groups of like-minded people on the internet uniting for or against something. That's very positive. The negative aspect is we've become so addicted to small dopamine drops every time we get a message or a like so we don’t set down our phones - they’re always in our hands and we’re constantly pushing those buttons, ignoring people around us. It’s so important that we consciously have direct interaction and meaningful conversations with other human beings.
How would you describe the culture in NY?
The people that come to NY are generally people who are highly motivated to do something, to follow their dream, their career. That's a fantastic thing and it draws in very interesting people. But because of that drive, it's very easy to get lost in your dream and forget to satisfy the need for real human interaction.
So your canvas is a party boat or a dance floor or a yoga session?
Lightning Society is most well known for our gigantic costume celebration where we bring in Bolivian dancers and fantastic DJs from Berlin or the best acrobats in NYC. But ultimately what's important to us is lifting people up and giving them a platform to be the best versions of themselves; to make them feel beautiful, wanted and cared for. We spend a lot of time thinking about what people love and creating a safe place for them to be the person that they want to be. We invite all who share our values of open-mindedness and open-heartedness to join us. We want to encourage people to be the best versions of themselves. It really starts by creating a safe environment, setting expectations. If you can get 60 - 70% of a group to buy into a certain idea everyone else will follow suit. That's what being a cultural artist is - creating the space and expectations that people can grab onto and realize when they enter the space they are free to be themselves. They are free to talk about their ideas even if they're not popular. Someone may not agree, but they'll respect each other. That’s where the beauty happens.
Talk about your tribe.
I think community is a better word than tribe. The most difficult thing in a large city like New York is finding a community that resonates with you, that allows you to be yourself. When that happens you are able to give of yourself and everyone involved becomes more of who they are. That's one of the reasons why Timothy and I created a co-living space. We like to call it a ‘life accelerator.’ We spent a long time curating from our community to find individuals that inspire us, that are leaders or just open-hearted, inspiring people. And then we created the space where hopefully we can bring others in.
Describe the Life Accelerator.
We have a building in Bushwick, Brooklyn with 8 people living on two floors - it’s a very large space with private as well as common spaces, enough bathrooms not to argue about and on the third floor is a big event space that's isolated from all the living spaces. We have a nice rooftop with beautiful planters and greenery, an aerial rig, and a DJ booth.
We view it as a constant work in progress. The beauty is in the day to day interaction of inspiring people colliding and the fruit of those collisions. The event space is where we have discussions on the ingredients of happiness. The structure of it is a balance of our social needs and a wellness aspect - we need to be healthy to enjoy anything. So that includes yoga, acupuncture, Reiki, nutrition, etc. There’s also the emotional aspect which is people supporting one another. We choose to be each other's family.
How do you bring your to art to reality?
You hold space for people that are ready and motivated to create something beautiful. In New York there is a lack of room. So having a space where you can experiment and bring in groups that are trying to make a difference, that's how you paint the picture. You give people a canvas, give them the paint and then you see what happens. We’ll accept whatever happens. It may turn out to be a beautiful painting, or it might look like a bunch of splatters. But either way, we explored and took that journey together.
Where are these experiences leading?
They're leading to a place where we are surrounded by inspiring people in a warm climate that's integrated into a community where there's a positive exchange. A place that has the ocean waves, the jungle, that smell of dense humid air. A place where we have more time and more space to explore each other and ourselves and to grow.
If we could all find a life accelerator, that’s the beginning of a mass awakening.
It starts small. There was a quote about a priest who wanted to change the world but realized he couldn't. So he tried to change his country but he couldn't. He tried to change his parish and he couldn't. He tried to change his family, and couldn't. So he changed himself. When he changed himself, he changed his family. When he changed his family, it changed his parish, and so on. If we want to make change, we have to change ourselves. And to do that we need to be honest with ourselves.
How did you change yourself?
By making a lot of mistakes, hurting people I loved and realizing that's not the way to do it. By getting feedback from people that loved me. It took a lot of time, but I’m ready to accept me for who I am and accept others for who they are. Hopefully, I can help create a platform for others to be more of who they can be.
If you could go back in time to a 12-year-old you what advice would you give yourself?
I think to be honest with yourself and with others. That allows the other person to make the best decision for themself and for me to make the best decision for myself. And then all of the relationships we have would be healthy ones. I spent the majority of my life in unhealthy relationships. I think most of us do.
Why are lilacs so special to you?
I grew up near the lilac festival in Rochester NY. Smelling that deep purplish pink aroma is a memory of where I was versus where I am now. There's a big gap in between.
When you wear those beautiful colorful coats, what does that do for you?
It's a way to fill a role. It allows me to go into the role of connector. It's crucial to bring people together. When we can look at something through different perspectives, that's when humanity makes big steps forward. You can look at a lilac from the perspective of an artist or a businessman or an astrophysicist. We all look at it and we can talk about it. That's how we can learn. That's what I'm excited to do. Plus the coats make me feel good.
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